The events in Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles, show an underlying relationship of man’s free will existing within the cosmic order or fate which the Greeks believed guided the universe in a harmonious purpose. Man was free to choose and was ultimately held responsible for his own actions. Both the concept of fate and free will played an itregal part in Oedipus’ destruction. Although he was a victim of fate, he was not controlled by it. Oedipus was destined from birth to someday marry his mother and to murder his father. This prophecy, as warned by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was unconditional and inevitably would come to pass, no matter what he may have done to avoid it. His past actions were determined by fate, but what he did in Thebes, he did so of his own will.
From the beginning of this tragedy, Oedipus took many actions leading to his own downfall. Oedipus could have waited for the plague to end, but out of compassion for his suffering people, he had Creon go to Delphi. When he learned of Apollo’s word, he could have calmly investigated the murder of the former King Laius, but in his hastiness, he passionately curses the murderer, and in so, unknowingly curses himself. “Upon the murderer I invoke this curse- whether he is one man and all unknown, or one of many- may he wear out his life in misery or doom! If with my knowledge he lives at my hearth, I pray that I myself may feel my curse.” (pg. 438; lines 266-271)
In order for Sophecles’ Greek audience to relate to the tragic figure, he had to have some type of flaws or an error of ways. This brought the character down to a human level, invoking in them the fear that “it could happen to them.” And Oedipus certainly is not one without flaws. His pride, ingnorance, insolence and disbelief in the gods, and unrelenting quest for the truth ultimately contributed to his destuction. When Oedipus was told (after threatening Teiresias), that he was responsible for the murder of Laius, he became enraged and calls the old oracle a liar. He ran away from his home, Corinth, in hopes of outsmarting the gods divine will. Like his father, Oedipus also sought ways to escape the horrible destiny told by the oracle of Apollo. The chorus warns us of man’s need to have reverence for the gods, and the dangers of too much pride. “If a man walks with haughtiness of hand or word and gives no heed to Justice and the shrines of Gods despises- may an evil doom smite him for his ill-starred pride of heart!- if he reaps gains without justice and will not hold from impiety and his fingers itch for untouchable things. When such things are done, what man shall contrive to shield his soul from the shafts of the God?” (pg. 452; 975-984)
Oedipus’ unyielding desire to uncover the truth about Laius’ murder and the mystery surrounding his own birth, led him to the tragic realization of his horrific deeds. Teiresias, Jocasta and the herdsman tried to stop him from pursuing the truth. Take for example a part of the last conversation between Jocasta and Oedipus. After realizing that the prophecy had came true, Jacasta begs him to just let the mystery go unsolved for once. “I beg you- do not hunt this out- I beg you, if you have any care for your own life. What I am suffering is enough.” (pg. 461; 1158-1161) Oedipus replies, “I will not be persuaded to let chance of finding out the whole thing clearly.” (pg. 461; 1166-1167) He is unable to stop his quest for the truth, even under his wife’s pleading. For it is in his own vain that he must solve the final riddle, the riddle of his own life.
Upon discovery of the truth of his birth from the herdsman, Oedipus cries, “I who first saw the light bred of a match accursed, and accursed in my living with them, cursed in my killing.” (pg. 465; 1300-1303) Oedipus knew that his fate had indeed come to pass and feels cursed by it. The chorus then sings an ode on the sorrow of life and the tragic fate to which even the most honored, like Oedipus are ultimately subject. “What man, what man on earth wins more happiness than a seeming and after that turning away? Oedipus you are my pattern of this, Oedipus you and your fate! Luckless Oedipus, whom of all men I envied not at all. (pg. 465; 1305-1311)
At the end of this tragic story, when Oedipus gouges out his eyes, the chorus asks him what god urged him to blind himself. Oedipus replied, “It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion. But was the hand that struck me was none but my own.” (pg. 467; 1450-1453) He claimed full responsibility for his actions. Oedipus was guilty of killing his father and marrying his mother, but perhaps the true sin lay in his overzealous attempt to raise himself to the level of the gods by trying to escape his fate. The chorus chants about how in prosperity, he was envied by all men, he was honored highest above all honors, and how he won happiness by pride (by slaughtering the Sphinx, and by trying to deceive the god’s will.) But, how ultimately, Odipus was judged for it, causing a reversal of fortune in his prosperous life.
The fact that Oedpius’ motives for killing his father, Laius, and wedding his mother, Jocasta, it does not take away from the horrific nature of the crimes. When he tears at his eyes with his Jocasta’s broach, Oedipus is accepting the full burden of his acts and knew that he must be punished for his sins. Therefore the last act of destruction was caused by Oedipus’ free will, but his tragic fate came about because of the nature of the cosmic order ( that every sin must be punished) and role of the gods in human affairs.
The chorus concludes this tragedy by warning the Greeks, that the only way to happiness is through humility and respect towards the gods, (qualities which Oedipus lacked, and ultimately led to his destruction.) They also warn not to take anything for granted, or suffer a fate like that of Oedipus. ” You live in my ancestral Thebes, behold this Oedipus,- him who knew the famous riddle and was a man most masterful,- not a citizen who did not look with envy on his lot-see him now and see the breakers of misfortune swall him! Look upon that last day always. Count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.” (pg. 470; 1643-1670)
Filed Under: Literature, Sophocles
In his Poetics, Aristotle outlined the ingredients necessary for a good tragedy, and based his formula on what he considered to be the perfect tragedy, Sophocles's Oedipus the King. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in itself; in other words, the story must be realistic and narrow in focus.
A good tragedy will evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to experience a feeling of catharsis. Catharsis, in Greek, means "purgation" or "purification"; running through the gamut of these strong emotions will leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that crying might ultimately make you feel better.
Aristotle also outlined the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero. He must be "better than we are," a man who is superior to the average man in some way. In Oedipus's case, he is superior not only because of social standing, but also because he is smart: he is the only person who could solve the Sphinx's riddle. At the same time, a tragic hero must evoke both pity and fear, and Aristotle claims that the best way to do this is if he is imperfect. A character with a mixture of good and evil is more compelling that a character who is merely good. And Oedipus is far from perfect; although a clever man, he is blind to the truth and stubbornly refuses to believe Teiresias's warnings. Although he is a good father, he unwittingly fathered children in incest. A tragic hero suffers because of his hamartia, a Greek word that is often mistakenly translated as "tragic flaw" but really means "mistake". Oedipus' mistake - killing his father at the crossroads - is made unknowingly. Indeed, for him, there is no way of escaping his fate.
The focus on fate reveals another aspect of a tragedy as outlined by Aristotle: dramatic irony. Good tragedies are crammed with irony. The audience knows the outcome of the story already, but the hero does not, making his actions seem painfully ignorant in the face of what is to come. Whenever a character attempts to change fate, this is ironic to an audience who knows that the tragic outcome of the story - as they know it in the myth - cannot be avoided.